April 28, 2001
Yesterday. I visited a children’s’ village for abused and neglected children.The organization which funds these houses is called SOS Kinderdorf, from Germany.. Basically, each house is like a family and there is a mother who takes care of 3-6 kids of different ages who were either abused or abandoned. It is like a big foster family except for some reason there is only a mother for each family and no father. We were talking about that and how it could be better for the children to have both a female and a male figure in the house. The houses are super nice, really modern and big. The kids go to normal schools and they call the house mother, “mom”. Indira, the woman who took me there, told me about kids she works with who come from families were either one or both of the parents was/were killed during the war. Despite that most of those kids come from very, very poor families, they act more “normal and natural” than the kids from the SOS Childrens’ Villages who are quite spoiled. The childrens’ villages can’t replace a natural family environment, but they do their best. Money and a nice house can’t substitute for a family where children aren’t abused or neglected and know that their real parents love them.
That trip made me think about how lucky I am to come from a loving family, no matter how much love and affection these kids get from their new “mom”, they will always remember the neglect and abuse from their real parents.
April 23, 2001
1. Bosnia in my veins
At some point in January or February, I was shocked at how I stopped asking about the war and how I rarely thought about what had happened during the four-year siege of Sarajevo. I got so caught up in my daily life, work and friends, that I just didn’t think so much about the war. I didn’t come here to learn about the war, but naturally, living here makes one wonder about how such a horror could occur in our “modern” world. It wasn’t until I came back to California in March that I came to feel how Bosnia has creeped into me.
After my parents picked me up from the airport, we went to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. My parents and I were talking about something and at the sight of red paint on the sidewalk, I abruptly stopped my mom and exclaimed “Mom, there is red paint on the sidewalk! In Sarajevo, when you see red or pink plaster on the ground, it is filling a hole left by a shell which killed people ”. (These are called Sarajevo roses.) Both she and my father looked at me strangely. Of course, I knew that there weren’t any grenades or shells in San Francisco and that the red paint on the ground was just leftover from a paint job, but my subconscience still associated red paint with the marks of Serb shelling and death.
I thought that when I walked past the bombed out buildings and massacre monuments, I wasn’t registering the tragedies endured, but I was wrong. Despite the fact that I regularly see those “roses” on my paths, somewhere in my mind, I do make mental notes about their significance.
To be honest, I try to stay away from the topic of the war. Unless someone brings it up, I try not to ask about it so much because when I first arrived, several people told me that they didn’t want to talk about the four-year siege and wanted just to move on with their lives. However, there is a lot I want to learn about how people survived and continued with their lives as much as they could despite the horror which enveloped their city and
I have become extremely close friends with a Sarajevan, Damir Imamovic, who has taught me a great deal about this country and culture. We have become so close like brother and sister. Damir is trying to teach me Bosnian, but being the lazy student that I am, I am not proud of my language acquisition as yet.
For a long time, Damir and I barely touched the subject of the war and then in January, we were sitting in a bar with some other people and we got into a very intense conversation about the war, the first after having been friends for almost 5 months. Before I left for California, we made a video about the city and we went to the sites of the two market massacres in Sarajevo. (These massacres and the Srebrenica massacre of 5000 Muslim men were so brutal that they made NATO wake up and get serious about stopping the Yugoslav army.) When Damir was filming the massacre memorial at the indoor market, I found out for the first time that he had been at the indoor market one minute before the bombing. He was in the market and then suddenly remembered that he was supposed to visit a friend for tea. When he got to his friend’s building, which was very close to the indoor market, he heard the sound of the shelling and then returned to the street and saw the dead bodies and blood all over the street.
Just last week, I went into that same indoor market to look for something. I couldn’t stop thinking about the massacre and the thought that Damir, who I have come to love so deeply, had been one minute away from death in the same place where I was looking for yogurt.
Is there a god?
A thought, which has passed through my mind repeatedly is: could this ethnic/religious based bloodshed happen in my sacrosanct California, the bastion of multicultural coexistence? The Rodney King riots of 1992 in Los Angeles of course show that we are not all peacefully living together, but could an all out war ever occur? Unfortunately, the only people in the US who can truly lay claim to the land are the Native Americans, most of whom were killed during colonial and post colonial wars and by brutal programs created by the US government. So, we don’t have any large group of people demanding their own “ethnically pure” territory, as in the case of the Serbs or Croats in Bosnia Hercegovina. Does that mean that we are totally free of ethnic based hatred and violence? No. I doubt that an increase of race based demagoguery in the US will make schools serve as locations for concentration camps as they did here, but you never know to what degree people will go if they are incensed with extremist thoughts.
So many times, I heard that before the war, Bosnians did not pay attention to whether someone was Serb, Croat or Muslim and there were many intermarriages. I still can not fathom how people could live together peacefully and then break up on ethnic lines. Of course not everybody was nationalist, but it is puzzling to know that so many Serbs left Sarajevo before the war started because they knew that something was going to happen. Under Tito, nationalism was suppressed.
These parts below were written in late March/early April
2. Susan-esque, Why is she that way? Can’t you just be normal?
Recently, I returned home to California for a 3 week trip to visit my family. Facing a constant barrage of questions pertaining to my life in the “bloody” Balkans, I felt under constant pressure to justify my life the way I am living it. I realize that I am old enough to make my own decisions and need not be swayed by others. Those interrogations are inevitable, especially when it comes to my Dad who I think physically suffers every time
come up with one of my famous travel “ideas”. (My mom has learned to take my
hair-brained ideas with a bit of salt, while my Dad should opt for some
strong cocktails to digest those “Susan-esque” itineraries.)
From an outsider’s perspective, the idea of a Californian leaving the wealth of Silicon Valley to go to war torn Bosnia with just a backpack and no job seems absurd. (With the recent fall in technology stocks in mind, I prefer to label this silicon opulence as artificial, like silicone implants) Not even I can make much sense out of my life, so it is much harder for others to get a grasp of my desires to do certain things. Then again, who said life should be as logical as an algebraic equation? If I had to plot my life into some mathematical formula, it would crash even the most powerful Pentium computer.
3. The Saints and the Bs
When people ask me “why are you here?” and “why were you there?”, the only short answer I can think of is that I like places that start with the letter “B” or which are named after a Saint. I was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and then moved to St. Louis, Missouri, from there to San Jose (Spanish for Saint Joseph), CA. At the age of 15, I started my international trajectory with the town of Pornichet in the Brittany region in France, near the city of St. Nazaire. The B’s: Boston, Berkeley, Bordeaux, Budapest,
Buenos Aires, Bosnia (part of the country of Bosnia-Hercegovina). So what’s next? San Francisco, Beirut, Beijing, Brazil. Not in that order necessarily. It is permissible to stray from the St. and B pattern. How else will I be able to visit my beloved Fidelito in Havana?
My next “B” destination should have better weather. Maybe BERDMUDA. My host family’s housekeeper, Sia, claims that good weather comes after the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Well, even though she is Muslim (I think), her weather predictions must be based on the Eastern Orthodox calendar, because it is still cold now and the Catholic and Protestant Easter has past. Orthodox Easter is this Sunday and I hope the Balkan weather god is in a good mood. (I think a weather goddess would be
more merciful at this time of year.)
4. Bosnia in 2001
So after so many repeated questions of “Why are you going back?”, “Why don’t you have a normal life?” and “What will you do when you go back?”, I thought it might be wise to crank out another email to shed light on my last Sarajevo months. NO, I am not writing this as an affidavit to my sanity or insanity (whichever way you may see it) or to explain why I am here, but simply to verbalize my feelings about my work and life.
I AM UNEMPLOYED. Yes, that’s right, my contract with Mercy Corps/Scottish European Aid is over. I loved that job and it is the best job I have ever had.
Call me the berry woman, the dairy cow organizer or the “kolhoznik” (Soviet cooperative farm) girl! I am all of them and proud of it. I laughed at the fact that I was sitting in my apartment with my tiny calculator figuring out how much money a family of four could earn from a plantation of raspberries, apples, potatoes, strawberries etc. My Dad wondered what my Berkeley diploma had to do with raspberries. Well, raspberries are a lot sweeter than boring software and semiconductors, so why not? Sweet assignments are great. My first job at the Buenos Aires Herald newspaper in Argentina was to cover a resentation by Malaysian cocoa sellers; I had a great time talking to one
of the men about the state of world economics while sipping on some hot chocolate.
Seriously, those agronomic analyses were much tougher than eating raspberry cheesecake ice cream. My job was to do a market survey of agricultural processors and other possible businesses that could provide jobs to our returnees. Before I explain my work with the returnees, I will first give a short explanation of the situation of minority returns.
Catholics (Croats), Muslims and Orthodox (Serb) Bosnians fled villages, towns and cities during the war and some are returning. When they fled, some o them occupied homes of other people who fled. For example, Muslims from one town escaped aggressors by going to an area that was predominantly Muslim and Croat and set up their domicile in a home previously belonging to a Serb family, which ran away to a part of Bosnia controlled by the Serbs. So for Family A to get back to their home, it is not so simple. If there is another family occupying their house, they have to wait for Family B to be issued an eviction notice. Family B can say that they won’t move until Family C leaves their home. In the meantime, while Family B is waiting to be kicked out of the house, they might sell the keys to another refugee family (Family D), not informing them about the original owners. When Family B moves out and Family D illegally sneaks in, Family A has to start the whole eviction proceeding again. One man told me about his dilemma to get his summer home back and each eviction procedure took 6 months. A total mess.
To add to that chaos, there is also the problem of the mujhadeen, mercenaries brought from Islamic countries like Iran and Afghanistan’s Taliban during the war to help the Bosnian Muslims fight. Some of them don’t want to leave. I don’t envy the people who have the jobs to expel the muhjadeen from Serb homes and relocate them.
Other issues: demining, schools, infrastructure. Before people can be convinced to go back to their pre-war homes, those areas have to be demined. As I have mentioned before, demining is extremely expensive and time consuming. For families with children, it is hard to convince a family to go back to an area if there are no schools available for children. Many of the villages I am working with didn’t have telephones, electricity or water before the war. During the war, those villagers moved to more urban areas and got accustomed to more modern amenities.
Fear. In one of the villages in Bosanski Brod where Mercy Corps is working,
there was graffiti stating “The best returnee is a dead returnee.” Who wants to go back to where they used to live if one of their neighbors raped or killed one of their loved ones? I am attaching photographs of these houses from the villages where I worked. Some are totally destroyed others are partially livable. In Zvornik, one of the areas I was assigned to cover, the beneficiaries are bussed in to work on their pre-war homes during the day and then at night they go home to the places where they are living. They are simply too afraid to reside in their pre-war villages because they fear reprisals.
6. Where did I come in?
To encourage minority returnees to go back to their pre-war homes, a sound job creation program is needed. Honestly, I feel lame telling people whose homes were burnt, whoselives were shattered and whose family members were brutally killed that they can go home and plant raspberries. However, many of the beneficiaries do not have much education and do not have many skills. Berries are not that difficult to manage because there is not mechanization involved.
Another good option for economic development is wild herb, mushroom and berry picking. Certain wild herbs are very expensive on the world market. The former Yugoslavia was quite famous for its medicinal herb and berry exports. Major problem: mines. Not all of the land in the villages is de-mined. Before recommending that the villagers pick wild blueberries, we have to be extra sure that the forest areas where they are picking are not mined. This last option, albeit the easiest, is impossible to advocate with a good conscience.
I don’t want to get big headed about my contract and it would seem silly that berries and potatoes would make one’s ego boost, but the reason I adored this job is it was aimed at helping people restart their lives. Waking up in the morning thinking that one’s work might help a minority community survive and cooperate with its neighbors is intoxicating. Seriously. This is not charity work, it is business development on a small
scale but with a wide reach. Optimally, these job creation programs are not just for returnees, but also for current residents of those areas. So if my berry computations can do some good, that makes me ecstatic. At the present time, Mercy Corps has not decided what type of job creation program to implement, but I sincerely hope that my work will be of some assistance.
7. The future. Don’t ask. Don’ Tell. This is the Golden Rule.
I don’t know and please don’t ask. A ton of ideas, but no concrete plans. My inability to use the return portion of round trip tickets proves that I should not be in haste to make any decisions. When I feel like it, I will get a move on it. As for now, I am here. I have saved up money from my Mercy Corps days and plan on concentrating on my writing in order to sell some articles about Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia (travel stories, post war reports, etc.) So if anyone knows of any publications which might be
interested in my missives or articles, please let me know.
Running away from the US President. I prided myself on not knowing the name of the US Vice President before coming home in March. (Notice how I do not use the words “my VP”.) However, when I came home and saw the president on TV everyday, the reality sunk in. Not having a TV in my apartment in Sarajevo is a mixed blessing. On one hand, my entertainment possibilities are limited. On the other hand, I can block unwanted images from my sight. (I do not consider George W. Bush as entertainment value, rather he makes me (run for the Kleenex box.) San Francisco is pulling me back to my sacred Pacific shores and when my feet make a semi permanent landing on my terra santa, I will have to reconcile my profound attachment to my adopted homeland with the political reality in D.C. Such is life. It could be worse. I didn’t have to endure the reign of Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia and see all of the terrors of these recent Balkan wars.
In June, I would like to go to Russia, where I haven’t been in six years. I plan on visiting St. Petersburg (where I was born) and Moscow. It is a pity that I barely know the place where I was born and I hope to spend some quality time learning about Russia. I have no schedule or plans, so if you have any suggestions of where I should go, please let me know. At this point, my trip plans are very tenuous because I am having trouble getting a visa for Russia. Diplomatic relations between the US and Russia are bad now and I think the Russians are giving a hard time to Americans who want visas in retaliation for the recent spy cases. So who knows when I will get to Russia. The staff at the Russian consulate is being very nice to me, probably because I am Russian as well.
(This week, I had to go to the US and Russian consulates to prepare my passport and visa for this trip. When I told some people that I had to go to both consulates in one day, it definitely sounded like I was reporting to my spy chiefs about my mission in Bosnia. I know that I look very suspicious here since I have no formal employment, so my friends like to tease me about being a CIA-KGB double agent. Innocent little me…….)
Some of you have told me that you sent me postcards that I never received. Please place postcards in an envelope instead of sending them by themselves.